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Bentonsport Memories

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Sponsored by the Bentonsport Homecoming Committee

Compiled by:
Iowa Writers' Program
Work Projects Administration
American Guide Series 1940

Federal Works Agency
John M. Carmody, Administrator
Work Projects Administration
F. C. Harrington, Commissioner 
Florence Kerr, Assistant Commissioner
George J. Keller, State Administrator

Professional & Service Division 
Helen Cresswell, State Director

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Rock Island Station 5
Post Office 6
Mason House - Library 6
The Old Academy 7
The Oil Chimera 8
Background 9
Indian Stories 11
First Wedding 11
First Dam 12
Mormons 13
First Pottery 13
Entering the Steamboat Era 13
Iowa's First Paper Mill 14
First School 15
Churches Built 16
Vernon 17
Dances at Mason House 19
Skating 19
Cornet Band 20
Steamboat Race 20
The Civil War 21
Steamboat Era Doomed 22
Flood 23
The World War 23
Bentonsport Homecoming 25
Sketch of South Bentonsport 25
History 26
George W. McCrary 28
William E. Mason 29
Edward R. Mason 30
William A. Clark 31
Martha Burton 32
Gideon Bailey 33
Albert Bigelow Paine 35

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Bentonsport Academy

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At the western foot of the highest hill in Van Buren County the Des Moines River flows through a hamlet of fewer than a hundred souls, which celebrated its centennial on August 16, 17, and 18 of 1939. On the hilltop facing the river stands a two-story farmhouse, the childhood home of the author, Albert Bigelow Paine. From here the eye sweeps Bentonsport, on level ground to the south but cradled in wooded bluffs to the north, a varied and ever changing vista.

In early spring, native wild flowers and trees bloom in the woodland. First, in the ravines, come the blue Johnny-jump-ups, then the waxen dutchmansbreeches, dainty anemones, hypaticas, and dogtooth violets. Then, higher up on the bluffs, the blossoms of the white hawthorn and the rose-flowered wild crab-apple unfold, while on the rocky ledges grow the almost inaccessible columbine and lacelike ferns. Later the fragrant wild plum trees full of white bloom vie with the serviceberry, wild cherry and blackhaw, and the redbud supplies bright splashes of color.

The foliage of the hard and soft maples insures a seasonal change of scene. Overhanging willows, ash, elms, birches, and a few cottonwoods fringe the river. The Kentucky coffee tree, scarce in Iowa, is found near Bentonsport.

A glamour of yesteryear hangs about this almost deserted village which once claimed more than a thousand people. Most of the remaining buildings of early days are in use. Besides several somewhat pretentious looking brick houses, once the finest homes in Van Buren County, there are other interesting places to visit.


The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway station, the little red brick building at the foot of the hill, was erected when the Keokuk, Fort Des Moines and Minnesota Railroad reached Bentonsport in 1857,

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where it remained the terminus several years. Early residents have related how they transformed the depot into a temporary hospital when wounded soldiers returned from the Civil War, and that a number of their names are inscribed on a wall now hidden by partitions. In February 1921, the Rock Island Railroad Company transferred the agent and discontinued the depot as a general station.


About two blocks west of the depot, on the front street, is the little post office, built of solid walnut. This edifice, once an early-day dwelling house, has vertical siding, shutters on the long windows, small windows above the door and steep shingle roof. Miss Fulton, the postmaster for 26 years, is the oldest in Iowa, in point of service. She had been assistant postmaster for 24 years.

Next to the post office, at the right of the river bridge, stands the Mason House, an early Iowa landmark. This two-and-one-half story brick hotel in modified Georgian architecture was built in the late forties by Billie Robinson. During the flood of 1851 it was struck by a tugboat which took away part of a corner but left it otherwise uninjured. When L. J. Mason and his family came to Bentonsport from New York in 1857, they rented the small Exchange Hotel nearby but, a year later, to accommodate their rapidly increasing patronage, bought the building known then as the "Ashland House." This, as the "Mason House", became famous up and down the Des Moines River as the stop-over for steamboat captains and railroad men. After L. J. Mason's death in 1867, his son George managed the hotel until 1876, when he moved to Des Moines. His sister, Mrs. Clark, then returned to Bentonsport and took charge.


When, after a few years, the hostelry was closed, the hotel was left unoccupied much of the time. It now

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houses the community library. Mrs. Spitzer, a granddaughter of James Brown, the Bentonsport industrial pioneer, founded the library in 1934 with a gift of books previously owned by her father, Calvin Brown. Mrs. Francis Kurtz, a granddaughter of L. J. Mason and the owner of the Mason House, then placed a room at the disposal of the library association. In January, 1940, the library now had 2,000 volumes besides selections of books from the Iowa State Traveling Library. The house is furnished throughout with old-fashioned furniture.

Near the center of the town is the Hancock House, the home of Frederick Hancock, a pioneer storekeeper and an early Iowa legislator. In 1936, some government engineers visiting Bentonsport discovered that 39 kinds of wood had been used in building this Cape Cod style home.

Nearby, north of the railroad, is the white stone building known as the Carter House, said to have been built by the Mormons while on their trek west through Iowa in 1846. Its second story has been removed and a red roof now covers the thick walls of its single story. It is now occupied by Mrs. George Jack.


The two-story brick school building in a grove of maples in the western part of town was the Bentonsport Academy, built in 1851. It is little changed since then, except that the cupola is gone. This old building, with Georgian lintel and door, was sold to the school district in 1867 and still serves as a one-teacher rural school.

Two substantial brick church buildings, the Methodist and the Presbyterian, remain in use. The bell of the Presbyterian Church is noted for its sweet, clear tone. When the church was built in 1856, James Brown, an elder, was appointed to go to Pennsylvania and procure a bell. When he reached the Ohio River, he was delighted by the sound of a bell he heard on a steamboat, and finding upon investigation that he could purchase it, he hastened to do so and sent it at once by

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steamer to Bentonsport, where it still hangs in the church belfry. In good weather its clear ring can be heard for miles.

In the western part of town, on the riverbank, is the Odd Fellow's hall, built in the early 1840's, vacant since the lodge sold the building a few years ago. It housed the relics during Bentonsport's Centennial. This narrow two-story brick building was first used as a furniture store. When the I.O.O.F. acquired it, they added an outside stairway but enclosed it when they remodeled the place. As it is located on the gravel road through Bentonsport to the F.R.A. Experimental Farm, one and one-half miles to the west, many visitors stop to view the river bank back of the building, where the ruins of the lock walls cause a small ripple in the stream.

In front of the village store on the front street stands the old town pump. The well was dug to water the teams of the early settlers who drove many miles to Bentonsport to trade and bring their work to the mills. It still supplies much of the water for household use as well as for livestock.


On the Lloyd Roland property, in the eastern part of town, is an artesian well with water of the same mineral composition as the springs at Colfax, Iowa. In 1917, some geologists found traces of oil in the locality, the survey showing the dome to be located below the Roland lot. A company of Bentonsport people leased some land along the river and contracted with a Mr. Foss to bore to a depth of 1,000 feet. The equipment arrived in September and drilling began at once. The landowners of the community and members of the company showed keen interest but did not become unduly excited. Many visitors came to watch the steel drill in operation, hoping to be present when it struck oil. Traces of oil were struck at 600 feet and boring was continued. After reaching a depth of 1000 feet, the contractors bored deeper, free of charge, until they

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struck an artesian flow at 1,024 feet. The wall was then plugged with a green white oak post. Later, an iron pipe was inserted, and the well enclosed. After a time it was nearly forgotten.


When the native forests and grasslands of Iowa existed undisturbed, the Des Moines River was swifter and deeper than now, and attracted Van Buren County settlers who looked forward to steamboat navigation. Many ambitious people from the East, hearing of the richness and beauty of the Des Moines valley, came to seek fortunes and establish homes along the river.

Early in 1836, Shapely P. Ross, Giles Sullivan and Charles Sanford came to the county from St. Francisville, Missouri. Since there were no roads then, they drove their teams into the river, then void of sand or mud, and selected a site for a settlement near the present town of Bentonsport.

Mrs. Ross was a sister of John C. Sullivan, the surveyor, who in 1816 marked the Missouri boundary line "east to the Rapids of the Des Moines." Ross had accompanied Sullivan, and being impressed with the beauty and the potential prosperity of the country, moved with his family and Negroes to what was later called the "Ross Settlement."

He always persisted in his contention that the northern boundary of Missouri crossed the Des Moines Rapids below Keosauqua. Finding himself in difficulties over recovering a runaway slave, Ross left hurriedly in 1838 for Texas, his wife and Negroes remaining at the settlement. It is said that before leaving, he delivered a smashing blow to the face of H. Buckland of Bentonsport, the county's first lawyer. Ross's son, Lawrence Sullivan Ross, who became the eighteenth Governor of Texas, was born in the settlement on September 27, 1838, after Ross departed, and named for John C. Sullivan. A little later, Mrs. Ross rejoined her husband in Texas. The death of one of the Ross Negroes, Aunt Mournin, is the first death recorded at Bentonsport.

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The locality was filling up with settlers on both sides of the river and was called Benton's Port, for Thomas H. Benton, the United States Senator from Missouri. On June 21, 1837, the board of supervisors of Van Buren County granted licenses to Isaac Reed and Henry Smith to operate ferries across the river between North and South Benton's Port. Rates of ferriage were established for persons, wagon with team, horse and rider, yoke of oxen, and heads of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and swine.

Among the first arrivals at Benton's Port was John W. Burton from Kentucky who came late in 1836 and settled north of the river. Gideon Bailey from Kentucky, James McCrary from Indiana, A. H. Woods from West Virginia, and L. R. Merideth from Illinois came in 1837. Dr. Cowles, a surgeon from the East, came to practice at Benton's Port in 1838, and, with many others that year, came Frederick Hancock from Connecticut who bought land to the north; a Freeman family from Ohio and Samuel. Morris from Kentucky.

A wholesome community spirit prevailed. The men were quick to lend a hand when a barn raising, wood chopping, or cornhusking quickly accomplished for a neighbor an otherwise gigantic task.

By that time Benton's Port was quite a nucleus of a town. On September 10, 1838, it lost to Keosauqua in an election held at Farmington to decide the location of the county seat. But, undismayed, early in 1839 John Banding, H. P. Graves and Charles Sanford surveyed and platted the land on the north side of the river for a town site, and H. P. Graves and Alva White opened a store.

The inhabitants of this new town decided they should celebrate on the Fourth of July. An old-fashioned barbecue and a platform program was arranged, with James Hall, a member of the first Territorial Legislature, as speaker of the day. People came from all places in the county and enjoyed the day so thoroughly that all agreed the town had been appropriately named, "Bent-

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on-sport." The celebration became an annual one for several decades. and "Bentonsport" was the accepted name.


The Sac and Fox Indians passed up and down the river on foot or in canoes almost daily, and Bentonsport has many Indian stories. One was told by Peter Marsan and his wife, who kept a small eating house in 1839. In March, Chief Keokuk and a squaw of middle age came for breakfast. After Mrs. Marsan had given them a good meal, they left through an adjoining room, where, in a few moments, Mrs. Marson found her eight-months-old son missing. Her three-year-old son said "Woman took baby." Greatly alarmed she ran out calling for aid. She was soon joined by John D. Sanford, and, calling the Marsan's dog, they started in pursuit of the Indians. They soon perceived the squaw running toward the canoes with the infant in her arms. The dog quickly overtook her and seized her garment in his teeth, whereupon she turned, ran back and restored the child to its cradle. By sign language, she explained that she merely wanted to paint the child like an Indian.


After the Marsans left Bentonsport in 1839, John Burton and his mother kept a village hotel in a building built by the Freemans in 1838. The first wedding in Bentonsport was that of John Burton and Abigail Freeman in 1839.

Bentonsport was on the Territorial road from Louisa County south to the Missouri line, besides the one from Keokuk up the Des Moines to Iowaville, and thus had significant stagecoach connections.

Seth Richards, a Massachusetts financier, after an extended tour, selected Bentonsport as an advantageous location. He then bought some land north of Bentonsport, and settled. In 1839, he was appointed postmaster. He built, for his family, a twelve-room home in the town and furnished it with rosewood and mahogany,

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with carpets of velvet. The town was proud of the house, of imposing architecture on a level sward of lawn. When it burned in 1915, the irreparable loss was keenly deplored in the community.


An act of the first Territorial Legislature of Iowa in 1839 authorized Seth Richards, G. W. Howe and Henry Eno to build a dam at Bentonsport, with locks to safeguard navigation. Richards began construction of the dam in 1840 and finished it in 1843. Judged by modern standards, it was rather a crude affair.

While the locks were being built in the spring of 1841, John C. Fremont the noted explorer was in command of a party surveying the Des Moines River. Ann Benton, better known as Jessie, a daughter of Senator Thomas H. Benton, came to Bentonsport, for a rendezvous with Fremont. The romance had begun at the Benton's home in Washington. Free from parental restraint, the courtship was resumed as together in a rowboat they glided over the quiet river and sought a trysting place near the unfinished locks. The gallant young lieutenant and his betrothed of 16 were sincerely admired in the little community and the affair afforded a topic of genuine local interest. The couple parted at Bentonsport to meet again in Washington where they eloped and were married the following October.

Later, Colonel Fremont wrote in his journal of the "densely covered" river banks, of "copses of wild plum" and "innumerable flowers". At Bentonsport the woodland in spring was a wonderland, with stalwart oaks, towering black walnuts, and huge sycamores whose white limbs harbored myriads of songsters.

By the time the locks were in operating order in 1843, Hitchcock and Noble had built a flour mill and a sawmill on the north bank of the river, and before 1845, the Allender brothers built a flour mill on the south bank. As the little town grew, McHenry and Slagle, the harnessmakers, John and Marshall Cottle,

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the wagonmakers, Moses Springton, the blacksmith and A. W. Harlan and Sylvester Henry, shoemakers, were patronized for miles around.


In 1846, a number of Mormons dropped out of the caravan on their trek west and solicited work. Edgar R. Harlan, former State Curator, states that much of the building in North and South Bentonsport was done by the same artisans who erected the Mormon Temple in Nauvoo, Illinois. Some of the homes they constructed in South Bentonsport had door frames, window sills and other inside finishing all fashioned by hand, and beams cut from solid walnut logs. A few stayed a year, working for Seth Richards and other settlers and requesting very small wages; some sought only food and shelter.


In 1848, James Clark came to South Bentonsport, and finding the clay in that locality suitable for pottery manufacture, started the first pottery in the county, with a log kiln and mud oven.

The California "gold fever" struck Bentonsport in 1849 but only a few undertook the perilous journey to the West. Henry and Joseph Keck, who made the trip with an ox team in 1850, returned to Bentonsport in 1851. They made a second trip in 1852, by water, living through a cholera epidemic which struck the crew, and returned in 1855. Mr. J. D. Israel made the trip overland returning in 1851. James F. Bailey also went by water and, 77 days at sea between the Isthmus of Panama and San Francisco, nearly perished for lack of proper drinking water. Joseph Montgomery also left to work in the gold fields for a time, but returned to work in the Bentonsport mills.


Better transportation than the slow-moving flatboats was needed for the cereal products of the valley, and in 1847, the Iowa Legislature accepted from Congress

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a grant of land along the Des Moines River. This was to be sold to finance improvements on the Des Moines River for navigation. In 1849, Sam Curtis, a state surveyor, named Bentonsport as a site for one of the dams planned to turn the river into a succession of huge reservoirs with locks and floodgates at each dam. When, in 1850, James Brown and John D. Sanford contracted for the work and commenced construction of the dam, Bentonsport bustled with activity -- a lively and noisy scene.

In 1851 the town was incorporated and entered the romantic steamboat era with great hopes for the future. George Green was the first mayor and James Brown, N. C. Cresswell, C. E. Newlon, George Marley, and W. N. Bragg the councilmen.


The prospects of river traffic encouraged the citizens to attract business. James Barr contacted the Green brothers, who were looking for a suitable site for a paper mill, and persuaded them to build it at Bentonsport. When they had finished the first floor of their mill it was destroyed by the flood of 1851, which covered the front street of Bentonsport up to the first floor windows. They rebuilt and finished in 1852 a five-story building, the first paper mill in Iowa. The flood had washed a channel between the river shore and the Allender flour mill, leaving it on an island. It was moved to the south shore in 1852 but not repaired until 1857 when it was started again, as a woolen-mill.

Although the flood destroyed much of the pristine beauty of Bentonsport, the budding industries quickly recuperated.

As work on the new dam progressed, cement and heavy cast iron for the lock gates were hauled from Keokuk by team and steamboat. Frederick Hancock at times advanced money and materials to expedite construction. Before 1855 the dam locks were in good operating order, with a 12 ½ foot lift, though still not

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complete. Steamboats had been passing for two years, loaded with emigrants and freight for towns up the river. Bentonsport was gaining residents, many of them deeply stamped with the culture of the New England states.

In the early 1850's Samuel Paine and his wife Mercy, the parents of Albert Bigelow Paine, came from Massachusetts and chose a home site on the hill east of Bentonsport because of the breadth and beauty of the view from the hilltop. Their first home was a double log cabin. Mr. Paine employed some men to clear his farm and to quarry rock from under the hill, while he conducted a store in the town. In 1857, they laid off a part of their farm, northeast of Bentonsport, into town lots and, confident of the town's expansion, named this tract Oakland. Although it was never settled, that part of the vicinity is still called "Oakland".


Bentonsport's first school, with a Mr. Butler as teacher, was opened in the early 1840's in a little log house with puncheon slabs for seats. Later, under a majestic elm, the school was held in a little brick building which was also a meeting house. J. P. Hornby was one of its teachers. At recess time when pupils heard the whistle of a steamer, the most important thing to do was to find out its name. It might be the JENNY LIND, the CLARA HINE, the EDWIN MANNING, the CHARLEY ROGERS or some other river craft coming into port, and a scamper to the river was in order.

The first Territorial Legislature approved an act which permitted an educational institution, the Bentonsport Academy, to be established and located north or south of the river as the residents might elect. The incorporators were Seth Richards, G. W. Howe, H. P. Graves, H. Buckland and Henry Smith. However, it was not until 1851 that the Bentonsport Academy, costing $3,000, was built at the foot of Tussey's Hill. Most of the work was directed by Ike McCracken and John

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Trigg, both expert brickmasons. The bell was donated by the Congregational Church.

Several religious denominations were active and meetings were held at Bentonsport before 1841, although there was no church building until 1850


Bentonsport's first religious group was the Congregational, organized in 1842 by the Reverend Harvey Adams, with Erastus Ripley as first regular pastor. It sponsored a union Sunday School and struggled along, worshipping where it could for ten years. It was said that meetings were held in the homes for so long that the people of Bentonsport unthinkingly knocked on the doors when they first entered their new churches.

In 1852 the Reverend Ozro French, a missionary who had returned from India, took charge of the pastorate. He bought a home in Bentonsport and began to plan for a building. He went into the woods, cut down trees and hauled them to the sawmill himself. He aided in the construction, nailing on lathing and assisting the mason. The structure was finished and dedicated in 1856, the same year that the Reverend Mr. French was removed to Knoxville, nearly a hundred miles to the northwest.

James Brown and the Green brothers succeeded in organizing the Presbyterian Church in 1853 and erected their church two years later. Their first pastor, William Harsha, was "allowed to resign" because he fished in the river more than he fished for sinners.

Various itinerant Methodist ministers visited Bentonsport before the sect built their first church, in 1857, near the Bentonsport Academy. Henry Clay Dean, the noted pioneer Methodist preacher and orator, addressed a Methodist congregation in June 1855 and ably mixed religion with politics.

Further up on the hill a Universalist society, with H. F. Greef a prime mover, erected a church in 1858. The Reverend Mr. Ballinger was the first pastor. This

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denomination was short lived, and the Seventh Day Adventists then used the building for a time with the Reverend Mr. McCoy as pastor.

Much social activity of the surrounding country centered in these churches and found expression in all-day quilting, church dinners, Sunday school picnics and plays in which old and young alike took part.


In 1852 a post office was established, with John Estes as postmaster, and South Bentonsport took the name "Vernon."

Vernon established businesses, grew rapidly and became a friendly rival of its sister town, across the river. The Pottery, taken over by Dixon and Calinbourn, became famous in southern Iowa. Many families in the neighborhood still possess water jugs, large pickling jars and milk crocks from this early Iowa pottery. Drain tile, also, was an important product of the firm. A weekly newspaper, the VERNON DEMOCRATIC MIRROR, edited by John Estes and published by J. S. Shepherd in 1855, reflected the progress of Vernon and Bentonsport. Issues of this paper, 85 years old but white and firm still, are now in the library of the Iowa State Hall of History. Mr. E. J. Pittman, superintendent of the newspaper division, states that this newspaper was the only one of early Iowa printed on paper manufactured in the same locality.

Advertisements and items in the Mirror of April, 1851, state that R. Cresswell in the four-story brick building opposite the flour mill, "keeps books, paints, and whale oil", as well as dry goods and groceries. Too, it tells us "G. C. Allender does grinding, sawing, spinning, and carding, keeps a variety of plows and pays highest market price for wheat"; that "J. M. Estes offers for sale his stock in the firm of Estes and Thomas, consisting of shoes, fancy goods and Ray's and McGuffy's school books," and that "McCrary and McCoy who supply furniture from the wareroom opposite Allender's mill, have a new curiosity, an extension table."

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There is a notice that the spring term of the Bentonsport Academy begins in April under John Valentine, with "assistance," and it is hoped a department of music may be added. It is decided that "the singing school lowers the attendance at. prayer meetings." An appeal is voiced: "Bentonsport needs a library." "The May number of Godey's Ladies Book may be obtained at the Mirror office."

There is some discussion in the paper on the relative merits of Sam Paine's land on the east and James Brown's on the west for the location of a depot when the railroad comes to town. Since Brown and Wood operate a ferry above the dam, and Robinson one below, crossings are guaranteed at all times, Bentonsport being the only place on the river with two ferries. Mr. Estes asserts his willingness to receive wood, coal, flour, corn or pork on subscriptions.

The "Mirror" press was moved to Keosauqua in 1857. But one other paper, the BENTONSPORT SIGNAL, an alert democratic paper edited by A. C. Bailey (1865 to 1868) was published at this place.

When the railroad came to Bentonsport in 1857 the depot was erected on the Paine farm land and remained the terminal for four years. The prosperity of the town seemed so assured that warrants issued by the town of Bentonsport in the late 1850's were circulated as money.

The farms near Bentonsport were found in the vanguard of Iowa's progress in agriculture. Timothy Day, whose name is the first of the signers to the Constitution of the State of Iowa, imported the first Durham cattle of Iowa for his farm northeast of Bentonsport. This farm is described in Iowa's earliest agricultural journal in an article written by William D. Wilson, uncle of Woodrow Wilson. Timothy Day was a member of the first board of directors of the State Agricultural College.

In 1851, after nine dams had been completed or partially constructed, the Des Moines River Improvement project was abandoned to the great disappoint-

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ment of the people in the small towns along the river. The remaining unsold land was conveyed to the Des Moines Valley Railroad Company, binding them to build a railroad up the Des Moines. Thus, in 1861 the railroad was extended from Bentonsport which then lost its importance as a terminal.


Life was not "all work and no play" at Bentonsport. When the L. J. Mason family arrived in 1857 and took over the Ashland House it soon became a center for social activity. Two generations of the Mason family transformed their hotel dining room into a ballroom and on many a winter evening poignant memories were left with the guests to carry on down the years. When the fiddler, often James C. McCrary, had rosined his bow and tried his A-string until harmony was assured, his rhythm-making heel struck the floor, the fiddle with two bass viols leaped into time and raced into a quadrille tune that quickened the pulses of the dancers. George Mason, a genial host, could call the figures and "taught the ladies how to dance." Besides quadrilles, the schottische, polka, and the sedate waltz were danced and here many a young lady with her dainty french heels and pretty silks, found her lifetime partner.


When the river froze there was excellent skating above and below the dam for many miles. Skating parties were nightly events, with large log fires burning along the shore at intervals to warm cold toes and fingers. These parties attracted people from the surrounding country. Races following a route that led three miles above town and back. Fishermen sometimes left open holes in the ice, into which many an inexpert skater was unexpectedly dunked.

Thomas H. McBride, president of the State University of Iowa for many years, once lived at Bentonsport, and liked to relate that in 1862 he skated to Keosauqua to attend a spelling school. The frozen river

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was the main route of travel for sleds and sleighs between Bentonsport and her neighbors, Bonaparte and Keosauqua. Another winter sport long remembered was coasting on Tussey Hill.

In early spring, visits to the neighboring sugar camps were made more interesting by the generous sampling of maple sugar. In summer the river supplied delightful fishing, and swimming holes. In the autumn there were nutting parties to gather the nearby hickory nuts, hazelnuts and the largest black walnuts in Iowa, and visits to a paw paw grove in the river bend.


The study of music was pursued as a pastime. Bentonsport was proud of its 14-piece cornet band, which on special occasions was augmented by a band from Bonaparte.

When farmers sometimes camped for days in the mill yards, waiting for their grists to be turned into "bread stuff", the time was agreeably spent in fishing, playing checkers, or pitching horseshoes. Behind the paper mill the ground, always covered with straw, made a fine athletic field.


Steamboats were a never failing source of thrills. On the afternoon of March 4, 1859, a signal from the CHARLEY ROGERS under Captain Beers was heard so far upstream that the lock keeper sensed some excitement and had the locks filled when the steamboat, loaded with pork and lard, came racing through the opened gates. It dropped down to the Bonaparte level in three minutes and was off again making a time record to Keokuk. The CLARA HINE, following at full speed, was unable to overtake her rival. No thrills from modern auto racing can compare with those of the Bentonsport river traffic.

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When the war cloud broke in 1861, little Bentonsport was ready to serve. Samuel Paine, after his wife returned from New Bedford, Massachusetts, with their son Albert Bigelow, born July 10, 1861, began to close his business and prepare for a long absence. He recruited a company of men and drilled them on the town commons. In 1862 he left with them as Captain of Company I, 19th Iowa Infantry. This company made a brave record, but the battle of Prairie Grove worked fearful havoc. There Paine lay wounded all night on the frozen ground with a number of his men. He was discharged and sent home but when his wounds healed, he again sought the army and found a place as sutler with his former regiment, where he remained until the war closed. After the war, Captain Paine decided to give up the farm with its cozy home on the hill and moved to Xenia, Illinois.

Many other Bentonsport men saw active service: James McCrary, who also recruited men for his company; Dr. Stutzman, Bentonsport's druggist, who left a lucrative practice to become a commissary steward in the 60th U. S. Colored Regiment; Frederick Hancock, who received a commission as captain; Eli McKinney, now the only living Civil War Veteran of Van Buren County, who still keeps a home at Bentonsport, his interesting mind to this day in command of a remarkably active body. George Mason served as a sutler. Volumes could be written of the experiences of these and other servicemen from Bentonsport.

The G. A. R. post was established at Vernon and held meetings in a two-story brick hall on the front street. Each year the post sponsored a Decoration Day service in the shady little park by their hall. After patriotic speeches and songs, parades with flags, flowers, and martial music were led by the G. A. R. This commemoration continued until the post was closed a few years ago for lack of members.

During the war James Brown had established a linseed oil mill which was converted into a woolen-mill

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by the firm of Brown and Moore in 1867, but this industry was terminated when the mills were destroyed by fire in the late 1860's.


In 1870, Congress declared the Des Moines River unfit for navigation, although steamboating was continued for several years. Bentonsport, with 1,000 inhabitants, was by that time the largest town in the county, boasting a bank under Greef and Pergrin, two hotels, two hardware stores, four general stores, various shops, and a law office. The general store of the Greef Brothers was especially noted for its wide assortment of goods. Louis Schriner, a large man with a kind, bewhiskered face who kept a blacksmith shop dear to the village children, still lives in the memory of Bentonsport.

By the time the railroad reached Fort Des Moines in 1869, river traffic had fallen off. Bentonsport then lost much of its prestige as a river town and soon began to decline, especially after the Greens' moved their paper machinery to Kansas in 1874, and the dam, which had been growing weaker from lack of adequate repairs, went down in 1879. The first creamery in Van Buren County was established in Bentonsport in 1881 but a year later moved to Keosauqua.

A cheaply constructed dam, made of cribs of logs filled in with rock, was put in by the mill owners in 1882, but was destroyed by ice two years later.

The river bridge connecting the sister towns was completed in 1885, and dedicated by an all-day merry-making, terminated by a dance at the Mason House in the evening. In 1900, William and Frank Mason operated the flour mill by steam, and the town, in a small way, was still considered a manufacturing community, but the dying of industry slowly continued. The Bentonsport Academy had inspired in its pupils the desire for broader fields of action and most of them left the home town.

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The flood of June, 1903, 4 feet, 7 inches higher than the flood of 1851, submerged all of the town below the railroad tracks for more than a week. Railroad communication was blocked for ten days. A central span of the river bridge, three thousand bushels of corn and two residences were washed down the river. The residents built a footbridge for pedestrians to use until the river bridge was repaired in October.

Another flood in 1905 quickly subsided but left some damaged property. When the flouring mill burned that year, Bentonsport abandoned all hopes for industrial recovery. The old paper mill, which had weathered three floods, also burned in 1905. Other fires took deadly tolls on both sides of the river. The remaining small business places changed owners frequently until most of them were discontinued, and farming became almost the sole occupation, But Bentonsport never relinquished its cultural interests. Dramatic clubs and literary societies flourished through its later years.

In 1913, as Bentonsport had not supported a picture show, two inexperienced young men rented a vacant lot and put up a wall of canvas with tiers of plank seats for patrons. Although the evening was very warm there was a good first-night turnout. The nervous projectionist, hovering over his machine, was surprised, when the comedy started, to find his audience not only responsive but hysterical. Turning his attention to the screen, he saw that characters ran swiftly up the steps backwards, and articles fell upward. The film had been started from the wrong end. The show was operated one or two nights a week for awhile, then Bentonsport's venture in moving pictures ended.


The World War found Bentonsport again ready to serve. An excessive rainfall on the night before registration day made crossing the swollen creeks dangerous for those on their way to register. A. R. Daniels acted as chief registrar in a store kept by William Carter.

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In 1917 Bentonsport had the first Red Cross sewing room in operation in Van Buren County. The membership rally was held at the Presbyterian Church. From a white pillow slip and a red muslin cover, Martha Burton hurriedly assembled and stitched a Red Cross flag which remained the flag of the local society. The two townships on each side of the river combined their membership at Bentonsport and held meetings at the home of Miss Burton in the Carter House, where she supplied a large workroom. Money was raised by the sale of needlework, cookery and farm products.

A Belgian Relief Society had its headquarters at the home of Mrs. Albert Patterson. A correspondence circle of young ladies endeavored to send some sunshine into the trenches. The women made a service flag which carried one gold star in memory of Clair Sargent, whose death occurred January 10, 1918 at Camp Pike, Arkansas.

When the welcome news of the armistice came, every school and church bell in the community was rung for an hour, and war activities were halted. The next spring when the word arrived that the train from Keokuk, carrying a remnant of the Rainbow Division, would stop for a few minutes at Bentonsport, a delegation of young ladies, bearing masses of lilacs, waited for hours for the late train. They felt supremely rewarded when the train at last pulled into Bentonsport and stopped. The lilac bushes had been completely stripped of their blossoms for the Rainbow heroes.

Then Bentonsport again settled into its quiet life. Realizing that something should be done to prevent the historic place from vanishing into tradition, Mrs. George Jack and Martha Burton in 1923 suggested the idea of a Homecoming Association to some friends. The group met at the home of Martha Burton in the Mason House, elected Marion Warner chairman, and with great enthusiasm proceeded to make plans. Lists of prospective guests were made and the third Thursday of August was set for a picnic, to be held in the grove of the old Bentonsport Academy. Mrs. Lee Dustin, an accomplished musician, was placed in charge of the platform program.

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An ice cream festival was then held to obtain funds for necessary expenses.


The result was amazing. So many responded that it was difficult to find lodging for out-of-town guests who stayed overnight. E. R. Harlan, then State Curator of Iowa, was the honored speaker of the morning program. Other speeches, interspersed by musical numbers, were made by former residents or their descendants. With Marion Warner, costumed as a schoolboy, the group sang "Forty Years Ago." Dinner was served cafeteria style on long tables set beneath the maples. So much fried chicken had been prepared that it was passed repeatedly through the crowd. In the evening an old time dance was held, and Mrs. Minor McCrary, eighty years old, won a prize offered by the Ottumwa Democrat for dancing the Virginia Reel.

Since that year the Bentonsport Homecoming has been an annual event. In 1939, the Bentonsport Centennial was celebrated, starting on the usual date, August 16, and lasting three days. Mrs. Frances Kurtz of Des Moines returned to the Mason House and opened it to the out-of-town guests who came from many places in the United States.


South of the river, a few buildings remain to remind the visitor of the once thriving little town of Vernon. The view of the river from the hilltops is especially attractive, as the bluffs on the north bank stand out in full view for several miles.

On a hill stands the school, a two-story brick building, with a broad vestibule, now used by the district rural school system. The bell in its steep cupola has a full rich tone. The school district has always been independent. The first school in the town was taught in the home of John Estes in 1852, but a little brick schoolhouse was afterward built which stood until the present one was erected in 1869 by the architect, Riley

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Cass. Grade and high school were held in this building until 1903, when the high school was discontinued. The large upper room was then used for plays, elections, lyceum, dinners and other events.

On the riverbank east of the bridge is a long, low, brick building once the Methodist Church, but now used by the Methodist Ladies Aid Society. It was built for a dwelling house but converted into a church in 1856.

Along the river to the east lies the old Bailey farm. Dr. Bailey, the pioneer physician, built an eleven room house with many fireplaces, which burned in 1921. Fred Heminger, the present occupant, erected a neat farm house on the old foundation, using the original brick.

The old twelve room two-story brick home of George Allender, proprietor of the early mills still remains in good condition, with its long porches extending around three sides. It is now a farm house, and evergreens shade its large lawn.

On a vacant lot, ruins of the foundations of the old Dixon Pottery can be seen, besides two mounds once used as ovens.


South Bentonsport is in a separate township and claims history apart from that of the north town. It was laid into town lots in 1837 by the Reed brothers and John and Henry Smith. A post office was established in 1852 which received the name of Vernon for a daughter of Dr. Bailey, the town's founder. This gave the town distinct significance until the post office was discontinued in 1903.

In 1878, a Mr. Gillatt, a wool merchant, took over the old Allender mill which had been used as a woolen mill during Civil War years, reopened it to manufacture woolens, and continued through the 1890's.

A flour mill was operated many years by various managers but was finally abandoned.

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At one period in the 1870's Vernon had four general stores besides a drugstore, hotel and blacksmith shops. One, established by the county's millionaire, Edwin Manning, was kept in a brick building which burned in 1908.

A lawyer, L. J. Evans, who lived in Vernon before the war, kept a home and office there until his death in 1903.

Most of South Bentonsport has since been torn down or destroyed by fire and cows now pasture in the untraveled lanes, beautiful with tender grass. The Redman still roamed the wilderness when, nearly one hundred years ago, Fremont the "Pathfinder" courted lovely Jessie Benton on a moonlit river in the shadows of the cottonwoods, at Bentonsport. The quiet river flows along through North and South Bentonsport, and one is reminded that here is an historic place.

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Hon. George W. McCrary, Sec'y of War

The Honorable George McCrary, son of James and Matilda McCrary, was born in Evansville, Indiana, August 29, 1835. He came with his parents to a farm south of Bentonsport in 1837, and later attended the elementary schools of Bentonsport and the Academy. Doing much of the hard labor of the pioneer era, he gained in physical as well as mental stature. After leaving school at Bentonsport he decided to study law and entered the law office of Miller and Rankin at Keokuk. He was admitted to the bar in 1856 and became a resident of Lee County.

He married Helen Gillatt of Bentonsport in 1857, the same year that, as a Republican, he was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives by the combined vote of several southern counties. In 1861 he was elected to the State Senate from Lee County and served four years.

In 1868 he was elected a member of the U. S. House of Representatives and was re-elected to the 42nd, 43rd, and 44th Congresses by large majority votes.

In 1876 Mr. McCrary was the author of a hotly contested bill to reorganize the Judiciary of the United States, a bill which did pass in the House of Representatives. He also prepared a bill consigning to Congress the power to regulate railroad commerce among the states. This bill also passed the House after a memorable debate but was lost in the Senate.

His outstanding service was recognized by President Hayes, who appointed him Secretary of War. In 1879 he was appointed Circuit Judge of the Eighth Judicial Circuit. He resigned from this position and practiced law in Kansas City. He died in 1890.

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William E. Mason, U. S. Senator

William E. Mason, with his parents, J. L. Mason and Nancy Winslow Mason, came to Bentonsport in 1858, and grew up a generous, mischievous lad in the Bentonsport schools.

After completing his education in local schools he taught a little country school south of Bentonsport. Later he studied law with Thomas Withrow in Des Moines and was admitted to the bar in 1872. In 1873 he moved to Chicago.

He was elected three times to the U. S. House of Representatives from the third district of Illinois, then to the United States Senate. Again, he served as a Congressman at Large. He was well known as author of the pure food laws.

He died in 1921 while serving as Congressman at Large from Illinois. His daughter, Winnifred Mason Huck, was elected to serve out the remainder of his term in Congress.

His philosophy of life is set forth in his book, JOHN THE UNAFRAID, a treasure of some of its proud owners in Bentonsport. During his life he kept his room in the Mason Hotel furnished as in his boyhood.

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Edward R. Mason

Edward R. Mason, the son of J. L. and Nancy W. Mason, came to Bentonsport at the age of 11. After attending the Bentonsport schools, he worked for the Stutzman Drug firm and later obtained a position as a drug clerk in Keokuk.

In the spring of 1864, he enlisted as a corporal in Company K, 40th Iowa Infantry, and served until the war ended.

He then had a position in a bank, and began the study of medicine. After finishing the course, he practiced a short time, then went to Des Moines, to change to the study of law.

In 1870 he was appointed deputy clerk of the U. S. District and Circuit Court and two years later was admitted to the bar. In 1875 he was appointed clerk of the U. S. District Court of Iowa and held this position 35 years. Relinquishing the clerkship in 1910, he devoted himself for a time to the practice of law in partnership with J. B. Dyer.

During his career he was engaged in several successful mercantile enterprises. On his farm near Bentonsport he raised Jersey cows and trotting horses.

He died January 30, 1929.

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William A. Clark, U. S. Senator "Copper King"

William A. Clark came with his parents to a farm north of Bentonsport, where he attended school in the 1850's; then taught in adjacent communities. Just before the Civil War he went to Montana and identified himself with a law and order movement seeking to prevent the operation of outlaw gangs. He secured some mining property which proved to be of inestimable value and became known as the "Copper King."

Turning next to politics, he was elected U. S. Senator in a bitter contest in 1898, but resigned after five months. The Montana Legislature then elected him to the U. S. Senate for the term beginning March 1, 1901, and he served the term. He built a home on Fifth Avenue in New York, and ornamented it lavishly, especially in bronze.

When his father died and was buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery at Keosauqua, Iowa, his mother moved to Los Angeles. To her memory, later, Senator Clark erected and endowed a hospital in Los Angeles. He died March 2, 1925.

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Martha Burton, Journalist

In the book, IOWA AUTHORS AND THEIR WORKS, appears the name of Martha Virginia Burton, author of SONS OF THE SUN, a volume of poems.

Miss Burton, the daughter of John and Abigail Burton, was born on a farm east of Bentonsport in 1860. She attended the Bentonsport schools, taught in the county for a few years, then attended the University of Chicago, and later Drake University in Des Moines.

She contributed to THE FORUM, of New York City, and later became editor of REASON at Rochester, New York. In 1905 Miss Burton became proprietor of the Ottumwa DEMOCRAT.

In 1915 she returned to Bentonsport, where she edited a Woman's Page for Swift and Company of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Miss Burton was always quick to lend her talents to any local civic movement at Bentonsport and answered many requests for Bentonsport poetry.

In 1924 she moved to the Rio Grande valley. Though now retired, she is still associated with the El Paso, Texas, HERALD-POST.

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Gideon Bailey, U. S. Marshal

Gideon Bailey was born June 3, 1809, near Louisville, Kentucky. He took advantage of every meager means of education until, at eighteen, he was teaching a country school. By splitting rails to earn his board, and with a small amount of help from his father, he studied medicine, and began practice in Charleston, Illinois.

The Lincoln family were among his patrons, and he attended Abraham Lincoln's father in his final illness.

In 1837 he came to Iowa where, crossing the Des Moines River behind a tired team, he made the first roadway up the riverbank. He then remarked, "I am going no further", and settled on the claim that became the site of South Bentonsport and his home for more than 66 years. He was a member of the House of the first and second Territorial Legislatures of Iowa (1838-39 and 1839-40), and a member of the upper House in third and fourth (1840-41 and 1841-42). He was a member of the First Constitutional Convention of 1844, and a member of the Senate in the seventh and eighth State Legislatures (1856-1860).

In an address to the First Territorial Legislature of Iowa in November of 1838, Governor Lucas stressed the need for a system of public schools. Ten days later the dignified young Dr. Bailey wrote and proposed an act providing for the codification of a system of free schools for the Territory of Iowa, a thing nearly unique in legislation at that time, but which formed the basis of our present school system.

It was said by his colleagues in the State Senate that Gideon Bailey, though his scolding made him unpopular, did more to make that body "toe the mark" than any other man.

He declined the governship of the Territory, tendered him by President Polk, preferring the appoint-

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ment of United States Marshal of Iowa. This position demanded a great amount of travel on horseback.

During the Civil War he was arrested by the military authorities for disloyalty, and confined in Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis. His Van Buren County friends immediately secured his release. The doctor, though deeply injured, was able to laugh about it afterward.

When this venerable physician, legislator and farmer died in 1903 he left a long record of valuable professional service for which he had never received or expected remuneration.

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Albert Bigelow Paine

Albert Bigelow Paine, the essayist, poet, humorist and biographer, spent his childhood days at Bentonsport with his parents, Samuel and Mercy Paine. His works include nature stories for children, books of adventure, and novels of the southwest. He died April 9, 1937.

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Thus ends a picture of old Bentonsport. Among those who attend the Homecoming are many who listen for the hoarse whistle of the steamboat and the churn of its paddle wheel. They hear the children shout as the boat comes into port and the groan of rope as it moors to its stanchions. They see the smoke curling from the mills and hear the rumbling mill burrs as the farmers water their teams and visit. When the fiddler tunes up, again they see the Mason ballroom under its kerosene chandeliers, with a merry group all ready to "join hands and circle to the left!"

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Transcribed by Rich Lowe for the Van Buren County IAGenWeb Project copyright 2008